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North Bay cities are getting their first look at Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station designs, and officials are largely underwhelmed with what they have seen. With little fanfare, SMART this spring released the spare designs that include a bench, a shelter and some lamps atop a platform.

City councils in Rohnert Park, Novato and San Rafael this month held public hearings on the preliminary designs, produced by infrastructure company AECOM. Some city officials say the platforms are more akin to a bus stop than the sort of classic rail station design that residents envisioned during community input sessions four years ago.

“This is something that is very important,” Rohnert Park Mayor Joe Callinan said during the city’s station review two weeks ago. “What I’m all for is getting the best damn train station for Rohnert Park, not just some cookie-cutter thing just because of (SMART’s) budget. Just because we want the SMART train, I don’t want to compromise any of our standards. I want a good-looking SMART station, and I want it done right.”

SMART says with the money that it has, it is building functional platforms, comparable to other regional rail networks.

The expectations raised during better financial times must now be tempered with a dose of economic reality, agency officials say. Cities, private groups, even corporations may be able to chip in to enhance the commuter rail stations with amenities like restrooms, coffee stands and public art.

Jake Mackenzie, a Rohnert Park city councilman and SMART board member, said the rail authority never intended to build elaborate stations.

“This is not the romance of the Orient Express,” he said. “The perceptions of the public are altered by watching Downton Abbey and all sorts of things. They go into London and they see Euston Station. They go into Berlin and they see the Hauptbahnhof . . . . Platforms, yes. Train stations, no. They were never promised.”

Some cities, like Santa Rosa and Petaluma, have old train depots — relics of a bygone era when passenger rail dominated the transportation landscape. In those cities, the SMART platform designs seem to be generating less controversy. Still, city officials said, the platforms should complement the existing depots.

“We’ve already got a pretty interesting depot,” Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley said of the 110-year-old Railroad Square building, now in use as a California Welcome Center. “As long as the SMART platforms do not detract from it, I don’t know what more we can do to improve it.”

Petaluma Mayor David Glass echoed those comments in speaking about his city’s renovated rail depot, which currently houses the Petaluma Visitor’s Bureau and Petaluma Arts Center.

“I don’t know why we need much of anything. We have a historic building,” he said. “I hope SMART respects our historic nature. What is most valuable, for me, is the opportunity to have public comment.”

Some cities, like Cloverdale, Windsor and Cotati, have built contemporary station buildings with the intent of integrating them into SMART’s platforms. David Rabbitt, a Sonoma County supervisor and SMART board member, said cities are free to add their own station building at their expense.

“To me, there’s a big difference between a platform design and a station design. We call them stations, but in reality, what (SMART is) really designing are the platforms themselves,” Rabbitt said. “Hopefully we can have vibrant stations with a platform that’s going to be utilitarian and that’s going to get people on and off the train in a safe manner.”

The San Rafael City Council recently got a look at the plans for its downtown station, and leaders there where unimpressed, Mayor Gary Phillips said. He said that SMART should incorporate input from cities into the final design plans.

“I think it’s in SMART’s best interest to have some flexibility on this,” said Phillips, who is also a SMART board member. “If that (current design) shows up in downtown San Rafael, people are not going to be happy with SMART. The goodwill associated with that, to me, has some merit.”

Voters in Sonoma and Marin counties passed a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the commuter line in 2008, at the outset of the recession. Two years later, with the economy still slumping, the rail authority asked communities to imagine an ideal station. Those scoping sessions raised expectations, but no promises were made, according to SMART officials who recall those meetings.

The prolonged economic downturn, meanwhile, took a significant chunk out of SMART’s projected sales tax revenue, and in 2011, the board voted to scale back its initial plans from a 70-mile Larkspur-to-Cloverdale line to a 43-mile Santa Rosa-to-San Rafael segment that is expected to begin operating in 2016. Money for the custom-designed stations also evaporated.

“People were encouraged to dream about what their station would look like,” said Barbara Pahre, a SMART board member. “But that was a long time ago. That was when we thought that there was going to be plenty of money. We did set the expectation at that time that there may be a dream station . . . . It was never promised as part of the package, even back then.”

The station plans need to be finalized within the next few months, said Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer. The first trains will arrive next spring for testing along the tracks, and the platform tops need to be in place by then, he said.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, said the agency still is accepting community input on station designs, and will be compiling lists of elements that need to be included for safety and regulatory requirements and other features that outside groups could potentially contribute to the stations.

“Our game plan is to come back to the board next month and show the A, B, C and D bucket lists and associated costs and timelines,” he said. “We’ve just begun the thinking process and the conversation process.”

Shirlee Zane, a Sonoma County supervisor and SMART board member, acknowledged the funding gap to build the more elaborate stations. She said that SMART could get creative by selling advertising at stations or on trains or allowing companies to adopt a station and install art and other features.

“There is a real opportunity for us to bring in some significant funding from some major corporations that would enhance these stations,” she said. “Now is not too early to do some of this corporate recruiting.”

Jack Swearingen, chairman of Friends of SMART, a group that advocates for the commuter rail service, said he would like to see more elaborate stations. But the priority should be on building the rail line, he said. Station amenities could be added later.

“I think it would be grand to have better stations, but I’ve got to be real,” he said. “The money is not in the SMART budget. Surely cities, if they want something better than what SMART can afford, they will be able to chip in. This is a functional but not elegant solution. You might even call it prudent. I do think eventually they will be upgraded.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

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